The Seeker

Posted by on July 31, 2014 in FEATURES | Comments Off on The Seeker

The Seeker

Hubby Bliven has spent a lifetime searching for pieces of Roanoke Island’s past.

Roanoke Island has a mighty history that includes being the birthplace of the first child of English descent in the Colonies. Sunken ships from across the globe lay in nearby sea and sound, and buried in the earth are reminders of war and of the first people to ply its waters and till its land.

The island’s history attracts serious scholarly interest worldwide, but no one has spent more time searching for its treasures than artist Herbert “Hubby” Bliven. With countless dives, soundside wanderings and hikes across the land, he’s recovered artifacts connected to more than 400 years of Roanoke Island heritage.

The studio behind his 1908 homestead in Manteo is filled with Native American arrowheads and pottery shards, mounds of Civil War bullets, pipes, cannonballs, buttons, clay jugs, ax heads and belt buckles discovered on Roanoke Island by Bliven and his wife and sons. Antique cases of varying sizes and shapes are filled with artifacts he’s also purchased or for which he’s traded or that were donated to his collection over the years — old newspapers, coins, helmets, uniform insignias, plates, maps, books and pencil sketches of soldiers.

Many of Bliven’s finds are connected to the Civil War battle that occurred on the island in 1862. While the Union amphibious assault lasted two days, the Union remained in control of the island until the end of the war. For more than 150 years, detritus from the conflict and occupation lay in the soil and muddy sound bottom, awaiting discovery.

Melissa Jones WeddingBliven was 12 when he found his first artifact, a Civil War bullet. His relationship with history deepened from there as he talked with the island’s old timers, following up the conversations with research. Over time he noticed that not a whole lot of information or artifacts had been handed down by the local folk.

“Everyone else didn’t have interest in it,” he says, though the pastime connected him to the woman he later wed, Mary Ann, who also enjoyed hunting for artifacts as a child while living on the north end of the island.

Married now for almost 50 years, the Blivens share a love of history and genealogy. Family names, says Bliven, can be traced back centuries. He links his lineage to John White, governor of Roanoke Island’s lost colony of 1587, and to William Howard, Blackbeard’s quartermaster.

While he has learned a great deal about local history, Bliven, 66, doesn’t claim to be a scholar.

“When I start talking to people who know more than I do, I’m hesitant to really comment because they know more facts,” he says.

Just ask, though, about any of his artifacts, and with eyes alight he shares fascinating snippets of history that bring to life even an innocuous hunk of wood sitting on a shelf in the studio. Called a Quaker gun, it’s one of his favorite finds. The charred wood is not the kind of thing that draws the eye like a shiny belt buckle, dapper uniform or old coin. But Bliven reveals its purpose — the role it played in the Civil War. Soldiers burned the wood pieces to resemble cast iron.  “They would set them up, and in the distance they looked real,” he explains; he found this one on one of his island treks. He was familiar with the pieces from photographs by period photographer Matthew Brady.

Melissa Jones WeddingBliven also is proud of several artillery shells with designs that were subject to change during the war.

“We have a few of the earlier ones, which weren’t used many places at all and are probably rare,” he says.

National Park Service Historian Doug Stover calls the family’s collection “very impressive.”

“It’s probably the biggest Civil War collection I’ve seen, and it’s very well-preserved,” says Stover.

While Bliven’s collection certainly is dazzling, his connection to island life and its people also is a thing of beauty. He’s never had a desire to be anywhere other than Roanoke Island. But he says that as a boy he didn’t know how good island life was. As he shares bits and pieces of his boyhood days, the tale of an enviable childhood peppered with fishing, hunting and treasure-seeking unfolds. This includes soft-shell crabbing, cleaning and cooking catches of pinfish, croaker and spot, and searching for arrowheads and bullets with his brother, Eddie. They always sought permission from property owners before searching for artifacts.

“I didn’t want to be accused of doing things improperly,” he says.

Bliven also enjoyed connecting to coastal folk while driving the roads north to south in neighboring Hyde County, learning history from the people he met along the way and taking lots of photographs.

“We went to places Hyde County citizens didn’t even know about,” he says.

Since his quest for artifacts led to an understanding of the history surrounding his finds, he shared his knowledge by giving slide programs to clubs and civic groups in a number of coastal counties, sometimes returning with a jar of homemade chow-chow as payment. As folks watched his presentations, they began to ask for copies of some of his photographs. This segued into the business of making and framing prints. Bliven also is a painter. His subjects, of course, are the things he knows so well — waterfowl, decoys and coastal imagery.

Melissa Jones WeddingSurrounded by spoils from years of treasure seeking, Bliven operates a framing business in his studio, Roanoke Heritage Art Gallery, where he sells his original paintings, prints and photographs and handcrafts signature frames from cedar and rope.

In front of the studio near what’s now a paved road is the old white homestead where Bliven was raised and where he and his wife raised five boys. It’s surrounded by a huge yard dotted with an assortment of cats.

The Blivens passed down their love of history to the boys and enjoyed taking Sunday outings to the shoreline to search for artifacts. Using old spaghetti colanders, the kids went into the sound up to their knees and scooped and sifted through shells and pebbles.

“I found my first arrowhead when I was 4 years old,” says first-born son Jeremy. “[Dad would] keep putting stuff in front of us until we could pick it out.”

It took him a year to find an artifact on his own.

“You develop a knack for it after awhile,” says the elder Bliven, who also uses metal detectors and probing sticks in his searches. “You have to know the lay of the land and a little bit about topography to interpret the dips and hills.”

Knowing how to dive was also helpful. Jeremy remembers standing on the shore as his father donned scuba gear and dove into the sound in search of cannonballs. The family always recorded in a book the details of the finds, including the descriptions, dates found and whom they were with at the time.

Melissa Jones Wedding“So ever since I remember, I was looking for things,” says Jeremy, who went on to attain an undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree in creative writing.

For the past couple of years, Jeremy has been volunteering with the National Park Service at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site as an amateur archaeologist.

“Jeremy has a lot of background information and backwoods experience that helps us determine what actually happened on this island,” says Stover.

Many of Jeremy’s finds, including Civil War rifle butts, uniform buttons, bullets and camp materials and a slate chalkboard from the Freedmen’s Colony site, are on display in new exhibits at Fort Raleigh.

Like their parents, Jeremy and his brother John have not strayed far from home. They built a house a stone’s throw from their parents’ and continue the tradition of exploring local history. Jeremy searches for artifacts and operates Roanoke Heritage Extended, a shop in downtown Manteo where he sells coastal gifts with old bottles and other history-related items in the mix. He has published multiple children’s tales about Stumpy the Pirate Cat, inspired by the antics of the family felines and beautifully illustrated by his father.

John preserves history in films. An award-winning filmmaker, he is working on a documentary about a local backwoodsman from Manns Harbor. His camera work captures the feel of the water, the land and dust kicking up on a back road — things his father knows well.

“Four cars a day stirred up dust on the road in front of the house, and we knew them,” the senior Bliven says of the old days. “Growing up you don’t realize you don’t take in what you should be taking in ’cause it’s every day.”

It’s clear though, whether reminiscing with Bliven, viewing his coast-related art and photography or his collection of artifacts,that he has taken in a lifetime of his beloved Roanoke Island.

photographs by JULIE DREELIN


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